P-51 Mustang Flight

About to climb in the cockpit for my P-51 flight.

Short version I flew a P-51 Mustang. It was awesome! #bucketlist

Long version
My logbook now contains 1.1 of flight time in a P-51 Mustang, a World War II fighter aircraft that changed the course of the war. I flew in “Betty Jane”, a TP-51C which is a modification of the original P-51 design to add a second seat and a full set of flight controls and instruments in the rear seat. The P-51 was the first fighter that had the range to stay with the allied bombers for the entire time in hostile airspace. I had the rare chance to fly in a piece of history.

Video of my P-51 flight.

Here’s a photo album of still pictures from this flight.

When I got to the plane, I got a warm welcome from pilot Jim Harley. Jim loves his job and it shows in every little thing he does. He’s very careful, methodical and efficient. Before I knew it, I was climbing up the front side left main landing gear, over the top of the wing and into the seat where I was strapped into my parachute and seat belts. Jim fired up the 1300 horsepower Packard Merlin V12 engine. It roared to life and settled into a steady deep rumble. I’ve heard this sound many times at airshows where P-51s were flying. It’s a whole different experience when you’re sitting right behind that big engine — and we were still at idle power. A big grin was plastered on my face and I don’t think it went away for the rest of the day.

After warming up the engine, and methodically going through his run-up checks, we were cleared for takeoff on runway 32L at Moffett Field. Jim did the takeoff, but had me follow him on the controls. The airplane has so much power that the takeoff is a very brief event. The power came up and the engine growled with excitement. The elevator became effective and Jim raised the tailwheel, we rolled for a few seconds on the two main wheels, and then we were flying. Jim raised the landing gear. The plane wanted to climb, but Jim kept the nose level to build up speed over the runway. At the departure end, he pulled up into a steep climbing right turn over the airport. We made a 270-degree right turn and flew to the west.

Once we were clear of the airport, Jim had me take over the flying. I remember thinking, “Holy crap! I’m flying in a P-51!”

The plan was to fly in the general direction of Santa Cruz and do some maneuvering near the shoreline there. He had me make a few turns as we made our way to the coast. Jim and I had talked about my previous flying experience, and I told him I fly a Mooney 201. I was surprised when he told me the controls of the P-51 would feel very similar to the Mooney. He was right. A gentle motion on the stick gives immediate results, and the plane seems to read your mind and turn before you are even aware of moving the stick. It was a delight to roll the wings into gentle banks as we crossed the Santa Cruz mountains to the Pacific shoreline. The Mustang was eager to respond to each touch of the controls. We were cruising above some  scattered clouds which helped us get a visual sense of exactly how fast we were going. Inside the airplane, other than the 200+ knot speed indicated on the airspeed gauge, it was hard to tell that we were going that fast.

At the coast, we climbed to 3,500 and did some clearing turns to check for traffic in the area. Jim asked me to try a steep turn. My first one was to the left, and between giggling like a 5-year-old and being overwhelmed at my fortune in life to be in this position, I lost 200 feet of altitude. I know how to do steep turns better than that. I got us back up to 3,500 and did a steep turn to the right. That was better. I kept the horizon in one spot out the window and locked the bank right at 45-degrees, and rolled right out on my original heading. That elicited a look over the shoulder from Jim, and a “nice job” over the intercom.

Jim asked if I’d like to try an aileron roll. I think I said “yes” before he could finish the question. Jim took the flight controls back to demonstrate. He explained that we’d keep positive-G loading the whole time — we wouldn’t be hanging from our harnesses. He built up a bit of speed, then we pitched up about 30 degrees. Then he held full left stick and the airplane rolled around, through inverted and back to level flight. I remember looking straight “up” through the glass canopy and seeing nothing but ocean out the window. I was having more fun that I’ve ever had in an airplane.

Jim turned the flight controls back to me and it was my turn for an aileron roll. He talked me through it, and initially I didn’t put in full left stick. I think the range of motion was more than I expected, but I got it over to the stop in short order. As we rolled back around towards level, I rolled the stick back to the right to level the wings. We recovered to level flight for a bit, and then I tried another one. The second was better than the first, and my third one elicited high praise from Jim. He turned over his shoulder, looked back and smiled big while applauding with his hands raised high over his head so I could see them. Did I mention that Jim loves his job and it shows?

He asked what I’d like to try next, and I asked for a loop. We climbed up a bit higher to give us more altitude for the maneuver. Jim demonstrated the first one. Lower the nose, build up some speed, then a steady pull back and over the top. Relax the pull a bit when inverted, and then add more pull back on the downside.

It was my turn next. Loops are great fun, and they last a bit longer than rolls. I have just over 2,000 hours of right-side-up flight time. I enjoyed every moment of being upside down. We pulled about 4Gs at the end of each loop. I did 2 loops with coaching from Jim, and I got the seated ovation from Jim after each of those.

I haven’t done much acrobatics, mainly just some upset recovery and spin training. Prior to this flight, I had only been upside down in an airplane once before. I was starting to get that “hey it’s suddenly getting warm in here” feeling, which I understand happens to acrobatic novices when they start pulling Gs in maneuvers.

I just did some gentle turns for a bit to recover. Then I was up for doing some lazy-eights, wingovers and chandelles. These are all maneuvers I’m very comfortable with, and they don’t involve pulling any Gs. I probably could have done some more aileron rolls, but I didn’t want to risk losing my breakfast.

When it was time to head back to base (Moffett was almost due north), we took a detour to the southeast and flew past Watsonville and over the Hollister airport before flying up the valley to Moffett Field. We had to duck under that cloud layer and flew low altitude over the hills near Gilroy. I remember feeling especially grateful for experience I was having. Flying an iconic aircraft and just experiencing the magic of flight with a fellow pilot who enjoys it as much as I do.

We were talking to Norcal Approach, and before the air traffic controller handed us off to Moffett Tower, he asked, “Hey, before you go. How do I get a ride in a Mustang?” Jim told him to come to Moffett and get signed up. I’m sure most other pilots on the frequency were considering the possibility. This was a very expensive flight, but well worth it to me.

Jim did an overhead break to the landing. Again he let me follow him on the controls. He said that he wanted the airspeed to be “about 115 knots on final.” For Jim, “about” means “exactly”. He had us on airspeed, on glidepath, and dead on centerline (I’m guessing about that last part since I couldn’t really see straight ahead from the back seat). The main gear touched down like feathers landing on marshmallows. The landing didn’t take a lot of input on the control stick, but his feet were really dancing on the rudder. We tracked perfectly straight down the runway, and that’s because he aggressively corrected for any yaw excursions with timely and large rudder inputs.

As we taxied back in, all eyes were on this beautiful polished metal airplane. The airport fire department stopped their work for a bit to wave to us. Jim and I waved back with equal enthusiasm.

My hour of P-51 flight time was up, and I’ve crossed another item off my bucket list. Thanks Jim for an amazing experience.

Thanks to Nancy Verghese for taking all the great pictures and video.

The Collings Foundation takes their planes all over the country giving rides. Check their schedule if you’ve got “fly a Mustang” on your bucket list.

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